US Withdrawal from Iraq and Conditions that Enabled ISIS’ Spread: 2011 and 2021 Comparison

By: LTC Octavian Dorobantu, ROU Army, CSAG CCJ5
23 July 2021


In early 2019, the ISIS caliphate was declared “defeated” after losing the Battle of Baghuz Fawqani. However, in 2020, a significant growth in IS attacks has been witnessed in their traditional heartlands of Syria and Iraq, as well as an increasing presence in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, and across large parts of the African continent. Despite the loss of territory, the ideology of ISIS was not defeated. There are indications that ISIS is re-establishing itself in the Middle East.

Key Points:

  • Recent ISIS attacks in Iraq and Syria have demonstrated both a capacity and a willingness to retake territory, populations, and resources.
  • In the wake of COVID-19 and the reduction of US forces, security gaps have grown, the prison system has weakened, there has been an uptick in sophisticated attacks, and an increased presence of foreign fighters.
  • In 2010, the Obama administration made two strategic mistakes that reversed progress and sent Iraq spiraling back down the path of sectarian violence.
  • There are a number of supply-and-demand factors contributing to the resurgence of the Islamic State: popularity of the group’s ideology; turmoil in the region; the incoherent and inconsistent policies enacted to counter ISIS; and the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • The US-led coalition has destroyed the Islamic State’s physical caliphate in Iraq and Syria, but the organization is not defeated.
  • The US government must pursue a foreign policy that redirects focus away from a singularly counter-Iran mission and embraces and invests in a diplomacy-first approach.
  • USCENTCOM must reinvigorate coalition partners to invest and train in the region and surge efforts to support Iraqi and Syrian partners.

Read the complete paper here.

The opinions and conclusions expressed herein are those of a number of international officers within the Combined Strategic Analysis Group (CSAG) and do not necessarily reflect the views of United States Central Command, not of the nations represented within the CSAG or any other governmental agency.